What’s Next for Native Americans?  A Report From the San Francisco Bay Area

Photo: Johan Raskin.

I. Unceded Ohlone Land

If you’ve attended a recent public event at a library in San Francisco you’ve probably heard someone on stage tell the audience, “You are on unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land.” Last year, the public library commission issued a statement that reads in part: ”As uninvited guests, we affirm their sovereign rights as First Peoples and wish to pay our respects to the Ancestors, Elders and Relatives of the Ramaytush Community.” The uninvited guests have not behaved in civilized ways, though they have thought they were bringing civilization to “savages.”

Bay Arena Indians, including the Ramaytush, are doing more than affirming rights and paying respects, though they were nearly all exterminated. These days they emphasize sovereignty, responsibility and preservation of the past, including sacred places and shell mounds that their ancestors created and that still dot the Bay Area, though many have been long buried.

Historicans say that nowhere in the US was the genocide of Indians more brutal than in California, and nowhere were Indians more systematically bought and sold as slaves than in California. Now, that history is coming to light more than ever before, thanks to the Ramaytush and thanks to books like the recently published California, A Slave State by Jean Pfaelzer, a Professor Emerita of English, Asian Studies, and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Delaware.

Clear across the continent from Pfaelzer’s academic home, the City of San Francisco now has an “American Indian Cultural District” (AICD). Located in the Mission, a lively Latino neighborhood, it boasts a mural that shows the Golden Gate Bridge, a native woman with a basket and fish leaping out of the water. The mural’s words  read “Welcome to Ramaytush Ohlone Land” and “Empowering the S.F. American Indian Voice.” The website for AICD calls it “the first established cultural district of its size in the United States dedicated to recognizing, honoring, and celebrating the American Indian legacy, culture, people, and contributions.”

The AICD office is located at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. Mary Travis-Allen (Mayagna, Chortega, Seneca)— who has ties to the 1969-1971 Alcatraz occupation/liberation, the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation, and the American Indian Movement (AIM)— serves as the president of the advisory board.

It’s an exciting time for her, for the Ramaytush and for other Indians in the SF Bay Area, as well as for Californians eager to acknowledge the history of colonization, slavery and genocide and eager, too, to propel the Native American cultural revolution forward.

Readers of CounterPunch might want to know that California has more Indians—nearly three-quarters of a million— than any other state in the U.S. Many of them are Navajo, Lakota and Cherokee. Some have lived in urban centers for decades and have shared stories and found common ground, though colonization divided them from one another with the aim of conquering them.

Malcolm Margolin, author of The Ohlone Way. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

II. The California Native Ways Festival

Fifty-four years after the occupation/liberation of Alcatraz—an event that focused world wide attention on the plight and the resilience of tribes once deemed extinct— Indians are coming out, speaking out and demanding to be heard at events like the California Native Ways Festival held annually at Ohlone Park in Berkeley.

At the 2023 Festival, I observed, listened, reflected and learned a great deal. I was reminded that JFK noted in his 1960 introduction to a book titled The American Indian: “collectively their history is our history and should be part of our shared and remembered heritage.” Take that Ron DeSantis. Kennedy added that only through the study of Indian history “can we as a nation do what must be done if our treatment of the American Indian is not to be marked down for all time as a national disgrace.”

Malcolm Margolin, a Harvard grad like Kennedy, has probably done more than anyone else outside the tribe, to put the Ohlone on the map. He attended this year’s festival, but remained in the background, though he is the author of The Ohlone Way, which Alice Walker calls “beautifully imagined.” First published in 1978 it is still in print.

At the most recent Native Ways Festival in June, one Indian spokesman explained that “some woke people” came to his tribe and asked to borrow and use an Indian place name, thereby retiring the current “official” name. The spokesman explained to the woke folk that he couldn’t do that, that the tribe didn’t name the land and that the land named itself. That concept blew my mind, as did the news that in Berkeley, Indians are fighting to regain their territory.

Much the same is happening in San Francisco, where the Native Indian Cultural District is “dedicated to recognizing, honoring, and celebrating the American Indian legacy, culture, people, and contributions.” The indigenization—that’s a big word, isn’t it?— of the region is part of the agenda.

By executive order N-15-19, Governor Newsom created this year, “The California Truth and Healing Council that has begun to research and write a report “regarding the historical relationship between the State of California and California Native Americans.”

It’s due on the governor’s desk by 2025. Not that much time really to tell a complex story that began hundreds of years ago when European colonialists invaded and occupied what is now known as “The Golden State.”

Like many others in the Bay Area and elsewhere, I’m eager to read that report, which will likely “make recommendations aimed at reparation and restoration,” according to the Governor’s Office of Tribal Affairs. The SF board of supervisors recently approved a measure to pay reparations to African Americans, though it’s not clear where the funds might be found.

At the 2023 Native Ways Festival, I asked myself “What is my own relationship with Indians, and what role if any would I play in a world of reparations and restoration?” I had asked myself the same questions during the occupation/liberation of Alcatraz in 1969, 1970 and 1971, which announced the birth or rebirth of “Red Power.”

III. New Books About Native Americans

History buffs and readers who are inquisitive about the Indian past might not want to wait until 2025 to learn the story of genocide that has been well-documented in a spate of recently published books with provocative titles: Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape and Enslavement of Native Americans During the California Gold Rush by Clifford Trafzer and Joel Hyer; An American GenocideThe United States and the California Indian Catastrophe by Benjamin Madley; and Murder State, California’s Native American Genocide by Brendan Lindsay. Anyway you slice the history, it’s ugly, it’s immoral and in Kennedy’s words “a national disgrace.”

In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Ed Vulliamy, a longtime reporter for The Guardian and The Observer, writes about the massacre of Wintu on the banks of the Sacramento River in 1846 that was ordered by Captain John Fremont. One of the participant/ observers, Thomas E. Breckenridge, wrote that Fremont’s men “commenced a scene of slaughter which is unequalled in the West,” that “bucks, squaws and papooses were shot down like sheep,” and that the assassins didn’t stop shooting until there were no survivors.

Vulliamy reminds readers that Fremont, California, the East Bay City, is named after the Captain who ordered that slaughter. He asks, “Can Fremont still be called Fremont? Likewise other towns and sites?” One wonders, too, will San Francisco continue to be called San Francisco after the California Truth and Healing Council files its report? What might it be called? Perhaps the land itself will suggest a name. Words like “bucks,” “squaws” and “papooses” will have to be added to the dustbin of history, if they haven’t already been deposited there. It’s time for a new vocabulary and a new mindset to talk and think about California and Indians. Might we now consider what indigenization means?

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.